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With Thanksgiving here, I’m reminded of how we Americans (myself included) tend to lose sight of what Thanksgiving is truly all about. This year, I’d like to pay tribute and say thank you to an American, for without her efforts, we wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving the way we do today.
Some scholars will argue, but the consensus is that the Thanksgiving tradition began nearly four centuries ago in the year 1621. The Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indian tribe shared a 3-day harvest feast that is known today as the first Thanksgiving celebration in America.
That feast likely didn’t have today’s celebration staples of turkey and pumpkin pie, but more likely roast goose, venison, corn, lobster and fish.
This tradition continued for more than two hundred years with the Governors of each American Colony declaring their own days of Thanksgiving. These celebrations had varying dates from August to January and were typically offered to give thanks to bountiful harvests and even successful military battles.
Not until 1847 did an American writer by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale begin her long campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Sarah had numerous accomplishments to her name including authoring the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and a vast collection of poems. She was also an accomplished and popular novelist of nearly fifty volumes, an editor of magazines and a humanitarian.
At the early age of 34, Sarah was a mother of 5 children with the youngest being only two weeks old and the oldest the age of 7 when her husband died of a stroke. Sadly, this brief blog doesn’t do Sarah’s life justice; I encourage you to read about her over this Thanksgiving holiday.
Better yet, print out copies of Sarah’s story and present them to your family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf
Most importantly, Sarah was the individual responsible for making Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States. Sarah began her editorial campaigns in 1847 when she wrote:
“The Governor of New Hampshire has appointed Thursday, November 25th, as the day of annual thanksgiving in that state. We hope every governor in the twenty-nine states will appoint the same day -- 25th of November -- as the day of thanksgiving! Then the whole land would rejoice at once.”
Sarah’s crusade had the simple purpose of a uniform Thanksgiving Day throughout America. In 1851 she proclaimed:
“There would then be two great American national festivals, Independence Day, on the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving Day, on the last Thursday in November.”
Sarah’s reasons for the last Thursday in November were as follows:
“The last Thursday in November has these advantages -- harvests of all kinds are gathered in -- summer travelers have returned to their homes -- the diseases that, during summer and early autumn, often afflict some portions of our country, have ceased, and all are prepared to enjoy a day of Thanksgiving.”
Sarah’s original efforts spanned the administrations of Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln and Johnson. Her long crusade finally convinced President Lincoln to support legislation to establish a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War.
In 1871, Sarah began her second campaign to have the national Thanksgiving Day proclaimed by an act of Congress. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill into law on November 26, 1941, nearly seventy years after Sarah’s efforts began.
Sarah died at the age of 91 in 1879 and is buried in a humble grave in the Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. What an American!!! Thank you, Sarah and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Mike Popowski is President of PBI Restorations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.